High quality, fresh food makes up a major slice of every healthy diet, yet this requires effort, part of which involves having proper food hygiene high on the list of priorities.
Up to the point of purchase most food has run the gauntlet of harvesting, processing, storage, distribution and transportation. To compliment the high Australian standards kept at each of these phases, there after some basic things to keep in mind during and after your food has been purchased.
Planning ahead for food hygiene
Once bought, any food hygiene then becomes your responsibility, so thinking ahead before you shop is a good idea. In the warmer months you may wish to take an esky with icepacks to the shops to store any items that need to stay cool on the way home. Very handy if you are caught in a mid summer traffic jam.
Food planning plays a part early on, as starting with the freshest food available will mean that it lasts longer. Also planning what you need now and what you plan to freeze, allows food to be sorted into refrigerating and freezing straight after purchasing. For example food that perishes quicker, such as fish and chicken, should be bought in smaller amounts and more often if you prefer to cook fresh, and portioned, date labeled and frozen if you plan to freeze and use later.
Depending on where you shop, there is often a variance in the quality of basket cleanliness available. If you have not brought your own bags then perhaps lay a plastic bag at the bottom of the basket to provide that extra barrier from what lies beneath. If you are using your own bags be sure to wash them regularly and preferably use the same bags for the same items each week. For example fish in one and vegetables in another.
When shopping the most obvious thing is to avoid are suspect items, such as swollen plastic wrap on meat packaging, broken seals or food with a missing or covered use by date. Taking note of food handling by staff and being aware of good food practices such as the clear separation between cooked and raw products can help determine where is best to buy.
Some foods are more susceptible to bacteria than others, for example soft cheeses, preserved meats or raw chicken, and as such require greater care when selecting. Generally though the ‘when in doubt, throw it out’ catch phrase used at home, can also be applied at the time of shopping, so as a rule ‘if displeasing to the nose or eye, best you walk on by’.
Whether unpacking food or preparing it for a meal, having clean hands is essential. The more you wash the better. Preferably this is just before touching food and again if you touch your mouth or nose. Obviously patting the dog in-between slicing, or touching anything remotely involved with bacteria such as the toilet, nappies or dirt should be avoided.
Following the WHO guidelines on hand hygiene is good practice for your general hygiene and the same applies with food handling. Ensuring that you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, rinsing well, and finally drying them for the same amount of time as you washed, will keep any bugs at bay.
Further to this you can trim your fingernails and use a nail brush, as this will reduce the chances of bacteria being introduced. For example if you are working with different food types, such as mixing minced meat and then making a salad, you can more thoroughly remove bacteria from your hands. Vegetarians will also thank you for both your food hygiene and consideration.
If you cut yourself in the process of preparing a meal, then for the sake of the food and the injury, tape the area and cover with a disposable glove. Using sports tape over a bandaid will help keep the cut securely covered, even if the tape becomes wet. Doing this will not only speed up the healing process, but can help avoid having a bandaid as an unintentional condiment.
Food hygiene and preparation
Just like in the cooking shows, having food sorted in separate bowls will prevent one food item from contaminating another. This can also be extended to the use of colour coded chopping boards, blue for seafood, yellow for poultry, red for red meat, white for dairy and green for vegetables.
Once again preparation plays a part in that any meat that is frozen should ideally be thawed slowly ahead of time, and just before the meat reaches room temperature it can be cooked. Although some recipes require that an item is brought to room temperature before being cooked, it is generally better to have any chilled food taken out just before use.
With well organised food preparation there will be less chance of cross contamination and there is the bonus that you are more likely to have food ready in time for hungry kids or guests.
For the carnivores out there it is worth investing in a meat thermometer as although sausages, hamburgers, rolled meats and roasts may appear cooked on the outside, it is important that the centre reaches 75 degrees in the centre to kill any bacteria.
When any food is cooked, the temperature must rise above 60 degrees celsius for bacteria to be destroyed. Whether cooked or not, refrigerated food must be stored below 5 degrees celsius for bacteria reproduction to slow or stop altogether. Of course being on the higher and lower side of these recommended temperatures will offer more peace of mind.
Now that all the hard work is done, if your eyes happened to be bigger than your appetite, you may have food leftover. The sooner you decide what to do with this excess food the better. Food can stay out for up to four hours but must then be thrown away. Better then to decide early on, what to cool and what to keep out after cooking. Then if after two hours you haven’t eaten what you thought you would, refrigerate immediately and eat within a couple of days.
Obviously this will vary on the quality of ingredients you began with, but generally allow food to cool enough so that there is no longer steam and refrigerate, and once cooled you can freeze. Whether defrosting or heating up food from the fridge, it is best to do this once only.
As approximately a quarter of gastroenteritis cases are caused by contaminated food it pays to educate yourself about the signs of fresh food, such as ammonia being an indicator that prawns are not fresh. You can take this further and become wise to the tricks used to make food appear fresher than it is , such as pink lighting used in fridge display cabinets to boost the look of salmon fillets or red meat.
Like all education, appreciating the finer points of a subject as detailed as food hygiene, is a gradual process. The CSIRO and other government websites are a great resource and handy hints can be gleamed from the plethora of cooking shows out there or even by undertaking a professional cookery course.
Regardless of your knowledge, like the good food you choose, every bit helps and your body with thank you for it.